Charles Taylor et al. – reconstruction of democracy

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"Grassroots democracy"

A review of

Reconstruct democracy:
How citizens build from scratch
Charles Taylor, Patrizia Nanz and Madeleine Beaubien Taylor

Hardcover: Harvard UP, 2020
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Reviewed by Margaret D. McGee

When I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the citizens of the United States disagreed, sometimes violently, about the validity of our nation's attempts to spread the American way of life around the world, whether by force of arms, culture, or greenbacks. But at least in my memory we didn't agree on the superiority of our form of government: representative democracy. I came from high school civics class and I assumed that if a people had the chance to give democracy a try, they would probably stick to it and make a better life, possibly after a difficult one Transition phase. Our government had its shortcomings, but democracy could do something about it and give governance bodies an inherent, regenerating resilience. I thought we didn't have to enforce democracy. it would slowly spread on its own and in the long run would become a common form of government around the world.

How times change. In Reconstructing Democracy, authors Charles Taylor, Patrizia Nanz, and Madeleine Beaubien Taylor set out a number of factors that are currently fraying representative democracies around the world, including the destructive power of neoliberal economic policies that lead to extreme economic inequality; "Social" media, where silos of opinion suppress dissent and impair meaningful discussions; and the fragmentation of political parties, which makes it difficult for voters to identify with one party across a wide range of issues, or one party to do something with. For many people, representative democracy no longer seems to work in their best interests or even care about what those interests could be. As a result, citizen participation declines, the separation between politicians and voters increases and the regenerative resilience of liberal democracy withers on the vine. Unless citizens and communities can regain a sense of personal engagement and effectiveness in the political arena, the authors see these trends as a serious threat to the future of functioning democracies around the world.

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The reconstruction of democracy is a blueprint to put the fragments of democracy back together by starting in the communities where people live and work. The authors describe building blocks that allow locals to clarify the programs they need, promote support for these programs, and become effective forces for change. The practices outlined in this book, which are often triggered by local foundations and councils that address specific local issues, aim to promote community-based solutions, cross-generational and party-building relationships, common interests, and Uncovering goals and developing local answers to complex problems, attracting the attention and partnership of regional politicians and renewing the feeling of freedom of choice and power in citizenship. The book's ideas and methods have clear foundations in Charles Taylor's previous groundbreaking philosophical work on self-identity and identity in the context of society.

The short book contains three chapters as well as an introduction and coda. Chapter 2, "Aid for the Reconstruction of Political Communities", is by far the longest and comprises more than half of the main text. In it, the authors present a number of joint projects in the United States and Europe as examples of citizens who build such sustainable democratic processes “from scratch”.

Unfortunately, the life of the examples has been lost in overly academic prose, impersonal reporting, and the lack of organizational clues that help readers navigate the bulk of the material. The actual actors in the projects are never brought to life on the site. They rarely occur in the middle of a dense process analysis. Subheadings for signaling logical groupings to the examples – a standard organizational device in this type of material – are not used. The book reads like a dry internal academic paper.

The reconstruction of democracy aims to tackle an urgent crisis in global liberal democracy. The dangers are real and existential, and the approaches the authors advocate to address these dangers could make a major contribution to rebuilding a society that works for all of its members. I hope one day to be able to read a book based on their research and bringing this essential work to life.


Margaret McGee

Margaret D. McGee writes about living in the cosmos, paying attention and making connections. Her books include Stumbling Toward God, Sacred Attention, and Haiku – The Sacred Art. For more information on her books and other works, visit Margaret's liturgical prayers and skits have been used by religious communities in the United States and can be found with other considerations at

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